Multitasking: What a professor knows that students don’t

Multitasking: Students who've grown up with digital technologies often consider themselves masters of the art. But research shows that a distracted mind incurs "switching costs." Colleges should add multitasking to the responsible drinking and safe sex courses required of incoming students. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters
The trouble with multitasking: Computers and mobile devices can both enhance – as seen in this photo of Hannah Steenhuysen taken in her home in Rehoboth, Mass. – as well as distract students from their work.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a student was surfing the web during my class. So I asked her to come to my office, where she told me – with admirable boldness – that my efforts to police such behavior were wrong-headed. She had grown up with digital technologies, she said, and she had taught herself to “multitask” efficiently. Who was I to presume otherwise?

“Google ‘Clifford Nass,’ ” I replied. “Just not in class.”

Nass, who died last week, was the great slayer of the modern multitasking dragon. A professor of communications at Stanford University, Nass showed that people who did several things at once did all of them worse that those who focused on one thing at a time.

And the more we multitask, he found, the worse we get at multitasking itself. In most human endeavors, practicing an activity makes you better at it. Not so with multitasking: Veteran multitaskers are actually less efficient than people who just started doing it.

Nobody is really sure why. But it seems that multitasking places “switching costs” on the brain: Every time you change activities, you lose time while adjusting to the new task. And doing that over and over again exacts an even greater mental toll.

But here’s the sad irony: We think we’re doing everything really well, even when we’re not. My student honestly believed that she could learn as much in my class while web-surfing as she could without it. It just turns out that she’s wrong.

Ditto for homework, that great bane of American student life: the more digital interruptions that you allow yourself, the worse you do. Indeed, you’re often not studying at all. In a recent experiment observing people doing homework, psychologists found that students only devoted two-thirds of their “homework time” to  homework; the rest was spent on Facebook and other distractions.

Predictably, multitaskers take longer to complete their homework and make more mistakes doing it. They also remember less of it later on. And, lo and behold, students who Facebook while doing schoolwork have lower grade-point averages than those who don’t.

So do students who text and Facebook during class, as researchers at Harvard recently showed. But most of them keep doing it, anyway. Eighty percent of college students admit that they text in class. And in a recent study of law school students, 58 percent of second- and third-year students who brought laptops to class used them for “non-class purposes” for over half the time.

That has led some of my colleagues to ban laptops from class. But that doesn’t seem quite right, either. Like it or not, our young people are going to have to learn how to use these new devices in ways that promote – not inhibit – their learning. And forcing them to go cold turkey won’t do that.

What would? First, we need to share the latest scientific information with them. Just as many colleges now require incoming students to take online courses about responsible drinking and safe sex, so should they insure that the students learn about the dangers of multitasking. We can’t expect our young people to adjust their behavior if they don’t know that there’s anything wrong with it.

From the earliest ages, meanwhile, we also have to teach children strategies for separating – not blending – different activities. Instead of texting and studying at the same time, for example, reward yourself with a “texting break” when the studying is done. You’ll finish your work in less time, and you’ll get more out of it as well.

Finally, we should warn students that multitasking could inhibit their human interactions as well as their academic success. At the time of his untimely death, Clifford Nass was exploring how digital technologies – which have always promised “connectivity” – actually make it harder for us to develop meaningful attachments to others.

Just like our schoolwork, our relationships need focus in order to flourish and thrive. If you’re Facebooking while talking to a friend or a lover, you’re not going to develop as intimate a bond as you would if you gave your full attention to him or her.

None of this is new, really. For thousands of years, Buddhists have taught meditation as way to protect the mind from over-stimulation. And a century ago, pioneering American psychologist William James noticed that children responded to almost all distraction; the challenge of adulthood was to resist it. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will,” James wrote.

He was right. But digital technologies are new, historically, and they have made it harder than ever to control our distracted minds. It’s time for the adults in the room to step up, and to start focusing on what matters: focus itself. Otherwise we’ll all be like a little kid, drawn to “every object which happens to catch ... notice,” as William James observed. Clifford Nass had another name for them: multitaskers.

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